NCAA Tournament Preview: East Region
By: Kevin Wheeler
There’s always one region where the NCAA Tournament selection committee seems to make especially difficult for all those college basketball experts of the world to get right. In 2015, it’s the East region.
This should be the most difficult bracket for bracketologists to pick correctly. Seeds one through eight all have a legitimate shot to reach the Final Four. That’s how wide open this bracket is. There isn’t one team in this region that doesn’t have a significant question mark next to their name as a national title contender, but those same teams all could make legitimate arguments for their chances at a Final Four run.
Out of the Big East, the Villanova Wildcats earned the top seed in the East region and will open play in Pittsburgh for the first weekend of the tournament. ‘Nova is sound defensively, allowing only 60.9 points per game on the season, but concerns have to be raised about their competition level after playing in the Big East. Darrun Hilliard can score the basketball efficiently, shooting 43% from the floor this season, and with JayVaughn Pinkston playing strong on the boards in the frontcourt, the Wildcats are playing hard-nosed ball entering the tournament. They’re poised for a deep run, but don’t be surprised if they’re ousted before they make it out of Pittsburgh with two dangerous teams in NC State and LSU awaiting them in the third round.
The second-seeded Virginia Cavaliers are sporting the nation’s top-ranked defense entering the tournament, allowing only 50.8 points per game. They have held opponents scoreless for five-plus minutes 27 times and have allowed only two teams to shoot better than 50% from the floor against them this season. Malcolm Brogdon is a member of the first team All-ACC and is coming off of a 25-point performance against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament. With former player of the year candidate Justin Anderson ailing from a broken finger and having played only 28 scoreless minutes since his return last week, Brogdon will have to pick up the slack. Virginia struggles to score the basketball at times, and that weakness will be amplified quickly if Anderson cannot get himself healthy before they tip off this weekend. Virginia will have to rely on their defense to get them out of the first weekend, and make sure Brogdon has a good scoring weekend as well. Watch out for a potential match up with Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans in the third round and a potential ACC rematch with Louisville down the line if both squads survive to reach the Elite 8.
Third-seeded Oklahoma has come out of no where this season to be a contender in the Big 12, and have emerged early on to be a trendy Final Four pick for many people around the sports media industry. Don’t be surprised by this team if they end up in the East regional final. The Big 12 was a gauntlet this season and barring a missed layup by Ryan Spangler with two seconds left in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals, it might have been the Sooners hoisting the Big 12 championship trophy rather than the Cyclones of Iowa State. Buddy Hield can flat out ball up. Hield comes into the tourney averaging 17.5 points and five rebounds per game, and he’s got as much of a killer instinct as any of the top players in the country. This team plays hard defense and crashes the glass with strength and focus. They have the guard play to survive and the gritty play to back it up. Be wary of their depth, though. The Sooners only play about seven guys, eight on a good night, so this could play a factor If they get into some barn-burners down the stretch with teams like Providence, Virginia and Michigan State in the bottom half of their bracket, and then Louisville and Villanova out of the top half.
Look out for Michigan State. Tom Izzo is one of the best tournament coaches of all time, and he seems to always pull a rabbit out of his hat when March rolls around. Sparty played decent in Big Ten play in a down year for the conference, but they gave Wisconsin a run for their money in the Big Ten championship game just a few days ago. Without a dimwitted turnover with 15 seconds to go and a two-point lead, we may have been looking at a different Big Ten champ. Denzel Valentine’s offensive skill-set alone could push the Spartans to the third round for a potential match up with Virginia. This is an upset special to go to the Sweet 16 and maybe further. If you learn one lesson this year, it’ll be to never bet against Tom Izzo when his team is an underdog.
The eighth-seeded North Carolina State Wolfpack have a three-headed monster in their backcourt. Anthony “Cat” Barber, Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner make up one of the most dynamic group of guards on any team in the country, and they can score the ball quickly. Even though Duke blew them out of the Greensboro Coliseum a week ago, this team is dangerous and could easily end up in the Elite 8 if they play to their best abilities. Mark Gottfried has done an amazing job putting his team together and led his Wolfpack to wins over Duke, Louisville and North Carolina during ACC play. Lennard Freeman and Beejay Anya are strong enough on the interior to compete with Villanova and Louisville. Add that to the terrific guard play and you have an under-the-radar team that could make some noise in a hurry.
As a four seed, a sleeper pick might be a bit of a stretch for some, but the Louisville Cardinals haven’t been the same basketball team since the dismissal of their third leading scorer, Chris Jones. The Cardinals shoot 30.4% from three-point land as a team, and that could be big trouble if a team finds a way to keep Montrezl Harrell off the offensive glass and their guards away from the rim. With a week of practice to fix his team’s shooting woes, Rick Pitino will find a way to get the job done. Louisville always comes to play when March rolls around, and this year will be no different. After a seemingly “gimme” game against UC Irvine in the second round, the Cardinals have two mid-majors in Northern Iowa and Wyoming standing between them and the Sweet 16. The Cards’ are lethal when they’re firing on all cylinders, so have your eye on them to get into the second week of the tournament.
Low seed that can make a run
The Dayton Flyers are an 11 seed, and they’re coming off of an energizing win in their own building in the First Four over Boise State. This team had a Cinderella run to the Eilte 8 one year ago, and their poised to pull it off again behind head coach Archie Miller, who is quickly setting himself up for a successful career. The Flyers get Providence in the second round, a winnable game in a 6-11 match up, and could surprise an underrated Oklahoma team in the first weekend of play. Dayton seems to always have the magic on their side come March, and it shouldn’t surprise you if Jordan Sibert and company make it to the second weekend once again.
Seth Tuttle, Forward – Northern Iowa
15.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.3 apg
This kid could potentially be the most underrated player in the whole tournament. Tuttle plays in the Missouri Valley Conference, but he’s a stud nonetheless. He plays hard down on the block and gives max effort defensively. His nifty footwork offensively sets him apart from most players at the center position in the college game, and if the Panthers expect to make it out of the first weekend of play, it’ll be because they rode the coat tails of Tuttle along the way.
London Perrantes, Point Guard – Virginia
6.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 4.8 apg
Good guard play gets you wins in the tournament. Although Perrantes isn’t known for scoring, he can get the Cavaliers clutch buckets when they need him to. He distributes the basketball extremely well to a team that spreads the wealth offensively. The Cavaliers may not be the best shooting team in the world, but they’re certainly organized in their offensive sets, and that is largely due to the on-court, floor general style of leadership from Perrantes night in and night out. A good point guard is an extension of his head coach on the floor, and if any player exemplifies that role, it’s Perrantes. If Virginia makes a deep run, look for Perrantes to have a huge impact offensively and an upward trend in his scoring production. And, of course, just like the rest of his teammates, he’s fundamentally sound defensively.
LaDontae Henton, Forward – Providence
19.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 0.9 apg
If you want to talk about the best scorers in this region, LaDontae Henton must be in the conversation. The Friars are in a tough spot with the six seed, but have a chance to make it out of the first weekend if Henton plays the way we know he can offensively. This is one of those situations where he may end up trying to put his team on his back and carry them singlehandedly to the Sweet 16, and he’s capable of doing it. One concern you have with him, though, is he tends to disappear in bigger games. In Henton’s past two games against Villanova, he combined for only 21 points in two losses for his Friars. In one game against Kentucky, Henton dropped only three points. Henton will have to come to play with the big boys if his team wants to make a run.
Wayne Blackshear, Forward – Louisville
10.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 0.6 bpg
Aside from the dynamic duo of Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell, Wayne Blackshear makes this team move. His energy level, second only to Harrell, is frantic and difficult to contain on the offensive glass. Most of his buckets come off of second-chance points. Blackshear will makes the hustle plays necessary to win basketball games. If Louisville wants to make a deep run, Blackshear will have to boost his scoring production and solidify himself as the Cardinals’ third legitimate scoring option in the absence of Chris Jones. Pitino has been waiting for someone to step up and take that role. Blackshear is poised to make it happen. Look out for big games from him if the Cardinals end up in the Sweet 16.
Who comes out?
This region appears to be a total toss-up. It wouldn’t be any less surprising to see a team as low as eighth-seeded NC State in the Final Four than it would be to see top-seeded Villanova or second-seeded Virginia come out of the East. It’s entirely up in the air, but that makes for a fun bracket and a ton of fun games to watch. Expect all of these matchups to be close ones, but also expect to see some tough, old-school style of defensive basketball.
Personally, I think whoever plays the best defense in this region will end up taking the trip to Indianapolis. To me, Virginia and Oklahoma are the two best teams in this region, and at the end of the day one of them will take the trip to the Final Four.